Gender equality has always been a hot-button issue, but it has been thrust into the public consciousness in recent years with the #MeToo movement against sexism in all walks of life, from Hollywood to the halls of Congress.
For many, the pinnacle of women shattering the proverbial glass ceiling in politics came with Hillary Clinton’s bid to become America’s first woman president. She lost to Donald Trump despite his controversial track record with women (including allegations of infidelity and harassment).
Five women — Amy Klobuchar, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand and Tulsi Gabbard — have already declared their candidacies for the Democratic presidential nomination. And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is proving to be one of Trump’s greatest political foes.
A record 102 women now serve in the U.S. House of Representatives — 90 percent of them Democrats — making up nearly a quarter of total House votes. By comparison, in 1992, which was dubbed the “Year of the Woman,” only 27 women were elected to the House and Senate.
There were also a record number of firsts in this current 116th Congress, which boasts the youngest, most diverse freshman class in history: Democrat Rashida Tlaib of Michigan became the first Muslim congresswoman. Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Abby Finkenauer (D-Iowa), both 29, became the youngest women ever elected to Congress. Reps. Sharice Davids (D-Kan.), who is openly gay, and Debra Haaland (D-N.M.) are the first Native American women elected to Congress.
In addition, a historic number of women have been elected to state legislatures nationwide, with 28 percent of seats now held by women, according to the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) at Rutgers University.
“This is the largest increase in women’s representation in state legislatures we’ve seen in some time, after more than a decade of relative stagnation,” said CAWP Director Debbie Walsh in a press release. “The only question that remains is whether 2018 was a one-off or a new norm.”
Indeed, while women have made significant strides in leadership positions, from Capitol Hill to corporate boardrooms, they still lag behind their male peers in many fields — including diplomacy.
The numbers bear this out. The count of women ambassadors in Washington has never budged past 30, out of roughly 177 posts. It reached a high when Hillary Clinton was U.S. secretary of state but has since dropped to the usual figure — roughly two dozen.
“Historically, diplomacy has been the preserve of men,” according to Julia Chang Bloch, the U.S. ambassador to Nepal from 1989 to 1993 and the first U.S. ambassador of Asian descent. “Women were not admitted to diplomatic and consular services in any appreciable numbers until 1933, when 13 countries, including Nicaragua and Turkey, had women diplomats. Until the mid-20th century, the most extensive contribution made by women to diplomacy was as the wives of diplomatic and consular officers,” she wrote in an article for the Council of American Ambassadors.
Women are no longer confined to the role of diplomatic spouse, although the majority in Washington, D.C., still are. But there are quite a few notable exceptions, including several prominent recent arrivals.
Nordic countries have made the most prominent strides in promoting gender equality and women in government. Sweden, in fact, developed the world’s first (and only) “feminist” foreign policy. It also boasts a long tradition of policies such as generous parental leave to encourage women to stay in the workforce.
Likewise, New Zealand — which recently appointed a female ambassador to the U.S., Rosemary Banks — was the first nation in the world to give women the right to vote in the 19th century. Today, the country is led by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who is the world’s youngest female head of state, having taken office at age 37, and who became the world’s second elected head of government to give birth while in office. She has also earned worldwide praise for her decisive, forceful yet empathetic response to the massacre of 50 Muslim worshippers in New Zealand last month by a white supremacist.
In addition, several major U.S. allies recently dispatched their first-ever female ambassadors to Washington, D.C. That includes envoys from Germany (Emily Haber), Mexico (Martha Bárcena Coqui), Afghanistan (Roya Rahmani) and, perhaps most notably, Saudi Arabia (Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud).
Princess Reema has made waves not only for being the kingdom’s first female envoy to the U.S., but also because she has been a vocal advocate for women’s rights in her conservative Muslim nation — at times even shrewdly circumventing the authorities to do so.
As the first female CEO of a retail company, she found ways to help her female employees get around the country’s strict religious diktats — for instance, by providing them with child care and travel stipends (because women weren’t allowed to drive at the time).
According to a 2015 profile in Fast Company, she also cofounded a women’s-only day spa and gym in Riyadh but, because women’s gyms are illegal, she disguised it as a seamstress shop in case the religious police came knocking.
A divorced mother of two, Princess Reema is also a longtime advocate of breast cancer awareness in a country where uttering the word “breast” in public is still taboo.
Princess Reema’s progressive views may have been shaped by her American upbringing. A graduate of the George Washington University, she spent much of her youth in Washington, D.C., where her father, Prince Bandar, served as Saudi Arabia’s ambassador for 22 years.
But it remains to be seen whether Princess Reema’s local roots and impressive credentials can rehabilitate her kingdom’s tarnished image. Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is accused of ordering the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi; spearheading a disastrous war in Yemen; and arresting scores of Saudi women’s rights activists.
Princess Reema has tried to strike a balance in defending her kingdom while also acknowledging its shortcomings. On the one hand, she says the Western media often fixates on limitations such as the driving ban (which Salman lifted last year) while overlooking “the women who go so far outside the box of their limitations to make those issues irrelevant to their success,” as she told Karen Valby for Fast Company.
At the same time, Saudi Arabia’s new ambassador admits that she has to tread carefully in a country where even highly educated women don’t know how to “book a hotel room” or open a bank account because they are forced to rely on male guardians.
“I actually do have a family that will allow me to be mobile and dynamic, but that is not the reality of a lot of women,” she told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour last June. “And until it’s the reality for a lot of women, I think we need to keep pushing forward.”
From the progressive policies of Nordic nations to the conservative confines of the Middle East, and everywhere in between, The Washington Diplomat examined the shifting gender dynamics around the world by speaking to a number of female ambassadors in D.C., who offered their thoughts on what it takes to be a woman in diplomacy today. Here are their words:
*Responses have been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Mexico: Martha Bárcena Coqui
One of Mexico’s most notable writers of the 20th century, Rosario Castellanos, who also served as an ambassador to Israel, wrote many insightful cultural observations about women’s rights, gender inequality and the role of women in society. She wrote a book ironically called “Mujer que sabe Latín (a woman who knows Latin),” whose title comes from the old popular adage “a woman who knows Latin neither has a husband nor comes to a good end” — which reflects, in striking detail, some of the attitudes on women that were prevalent just half a century ago.
It is no secret that women around the world, including notable thinkers, have historically faced a series of structural obstacles that are now identified and discussed publicly. This has allowed societies around the world to understand the value of concepts such as feminism, gender equality or women empowerment, even when they were rarely discussed or even acknowledged more than 30 years ago when I started my diplomatic career in Mexico.
I am now proud to serve as the first female ambassador of Mexico to the United States, as great strides have been made toward gender equality in the last decades, even though there is still a lot of work to do to achieve equal rights and equal opportunities for women around the world. Before, I had the opportunity to represent my government as ambassador to Denmark, Turkey and the U.N. agencies in Rome. Even when government, politics and diplomacy can be seen as rigid and traditional, the role of women has slowly but steadily found its way into their core. Notable women have now occupied roles as presidents, prime ministers, foreign ministers and ambassadors with outstanding results.
Mexico, in particular, has played an active role promoting gender equality in regional and multilateral fora. For almost 40 years now, since Mexico City hosted the First International Conference of Women in 1975, it has been an active promoter of the “Women, Peace and Security” agenda at the United Nations.
Furthermore, when Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador came into power in 2018, he appointed eight women out of 19 positions in his cabinet, and for the first time in history, the parity between men and women in the two chambers of the Mexican Congress is almost 50/50.
Even when serious challenges remain in the ongoing struggle for equality and the protection of women, every success and advance should be commended as they are the result of many years of tireless efforts of bright and determined women of all walks of life that have taken us to where we are now.
Germany: Emily Haber
I have often noted that people — men and women alike — don’t expect to see women in male-dominated fields. Often, they would at first rather turn to the (male) accompanying colleague, assuming he was the ambassador. The surprise of people surprised me. But then, we are all wired to expect patterns we have grown accustomed to. Anyway, I never considered this my problem, let alone a challenge.
When I entered the Foreign Service in the early ’80s, I don’t think that anyone would have imagined that any woman would manage to become state secretary or be the highest-ranking civil servant in the ministry. But over time, it became less improbable. And I was lucky. With Angela Merkel as chancellor, women are definitely present in politics in Germany. Looking at the current German government, six of 15 cabinet positions are filled by women.
Sweden: Karin Olofsdotter
It’s important to involve boys and men in the work for gender equality, as they are key agents for change. Stereotypical masculinity norms prevent men and boys from fulfilling their own potential. For example, children all over the world would benefit from having more engaged and active fathers. And I am fully convinced that this would make men happier, too.
I have found that as a woman, I stick out among all men and have been able to use that to lift important issues. Being the first Swedish woman ambassador to the U.S., it is a rather thankful job to represent my country from a gender point of view. Sweden is the first country in the world feminist foreign policy, as spearheaded by oWallström ender equality is central in all decision-making and resource allocation.
ender equality and diversity is also vital to growth. Sweden has the highest female labor participation ever recorded in the European Union — 80 percent — which contributes to growth and prosperity in my country.
I am proud to say that Sweden’s feminist government has one of the world’s highest representation of women in cabinet: 12 out of 23 ministers. Our 349-member-strong parliament is currently made up of 188 men and 161 women.
But Sweden could do better still. Women earn only 87 percent of men’s salaries, and relatively few women rise to senior positions in the Swedish private sector. Only 6 percent of CEOs at companies listed at the stock exchange are women. The #MeToo movement caught on in Sweden, indicating that sexual harassment is common. So, the struggle to increase gender equality is ongoing and never ending. Yet, gender equality is both the right and the smart thing to pursue, in Sweden and all over the world.
Finland: Kirsti Kauppi
Actually in Finland, this field — diplomacy — is not male-dominated. More than half of the professionals in the Ministry for Foreign Affairs are women. About half of the leadership positions in the MFA as well as ambassadorial posts of Finland are held by women.
When I started, 35 years ago, this was not the case. We were in the minority. I am so happy to have witnessed this change.
Today, I don’t think my work experience here in Washington, D.C. is very different from my male colleagues. Back home in Finland, women in leadership are not a rarity. At all levels, but perhaps even more in the top levels, you need to be true to yourself. And it is important to show collegiality. Here in Washington, D.C., we have, for instance, a wonderful group of woman ambassadors. We support each other and share experiences.
In the international arena, women are still usually clearly underrepresented. Diversity is important; numbers matter.
I believe politics and government are not so different from other fields when figuring out what can be done to have a better gender balance. It is about attitudes and awareness, but also about policies. In Finland, we have long had policies that promote equality, including gender equality. Finnish women were the first in the world to have full political rights and actually exercise them, in 1907.
Another important thing is to have systems in place that make it possible for women to pursue careers and have children at the same time. Access to affordable childcare is just one example. More generally, it is important that both parents share the responsibilities related to children.
African Union Mission: Arikana Chihombori-Quao
To my surprise, the African ambassadors, most of whom are male, have embraced me more than I ever expected. It’s really been great working with them. They have all been perfect gentlemen to me.
I am a medical doctor at heart. My first instinct is to be nurturing in any encounter with humanity. Having practiced medicine in the U.S. for 25 years prior to becoming a diplomat, I feel at times people don’t know how to read me, both in the U.S. and in Africa. Mine is an awkward situation at times. Some seem amused with the fact that a medical doctor is an ambassador. I feel, however, that being a doctor actually more than prepared me for diplomacy. I would never have thought so — not in my wildest dreams.
Being a woman has never been an issue for me in my role as an ambassador. Those who might see me differently because I am a woman, that’s their problem. I will not own it for them.
Gender parity is a priority for the AU [African Union]. Out of the eight commissioners at the AU, five are women. Ethiopia has a 50/50 cabinet. The Rwandese cabinet is over 50 percent women. The African heads of state are all striving to have similar numbers. The continent as a whole is acutely aware of the underrepresentation of the majority of the population, who are women. We have a lot of work to do, but the awareness is there; so is the political will at the right level of governance.
St. Kitts and Nevis: Thelma Phillip-Browne
When I graduated as a medical doctor some 40 years ago, it was then a male-dominated field, so I have had the experience of realizing that it is all about believing that you can do the job and “blooming where you are planted.” It is this attitude that I took to my job as an ambassador.
Moreover, as I approached the job, I did research and recognized that the meaning of “diplomat” is “the art of dealing with people in a sensitive and effective way,” and there are synonyms such as “tactfulness, sensitivity, discretion, subtlety, finesse, delicacy, savoir faire, politeness, thoughtfulness, care, judiciousness, prudence.” I became convinced there is none who can do diplomacy better than women!
I acknowledge that for decades it was an uphill task for women in every field of endeavor. British society allowed female ambassadors in 1945 long after males, but because of the marriage ban, women still could not head missions abroad until it was lifted in 1972. Despite this history — notwithstanding that there are still many places where there is no “equality under the law” and no “equality of access” — I believe women are ultimately the ones who would change that. In order to do that, however, probably the biggest barrier we face is belief in ourselves and belief in our own gender.
When women begin to be confident that we can do as good, and sometimes better, a job because we tend to take broader perspectives and more caring approaches, when women support women who have that confidence and do not become naysayers, critics and detractors, then we will be able to occupy more positions of influence and instigate legal change where necessary.
Women also ought to be prepared to push for better childcare, including at job locations — especially as statistics show businesses benefit when childcare is provided — to get back into the workforce after child-raising, with the understanding that having raised children and managed homes, we are actually wiser when older and can contribute more. I often say we get better past our “best” or “sell-by” dates — a play on what is written on packages of supermarket produce, but no disrespect!
The dynamics in St. Kitts and Nevis are not much different [from the rest of the world]. In the public sector, however, there is significant power in the hands of females in terms of heads of government departments, although not enough women are actually at the political helm, as reflected in parliamentary seats.
Moldova: Cristina Balan
I’ve worked only in male-dominated fields, from business to politics and diplomacy. My academic background and professional skills made me successful in all the areas I have worked in.
The only challenge I am facing right now is the pursuit of balance between my professional activity and family. I know that many women with similar experiences tend to isolate themselves, and I believe that an extensive conversation on this difficult balancing act is necessary. We need to drive more support and understanding of the choices faced by women.
There is nothing more rewarding than being able to make a meaningful contribution to your country’s present and future. As a diplomat in Washington, D.C., I am charged with the difficult mission to maintain regional interests and challenges of my country, the Republic of Moldova, on the U.S.’s agenda. Back home, I used to be a hands-on politician, constantly involved in shaping the political strategy of the ruling party. My previous involvement in politics allowed me to realize that women need to speak up and that their involvement in all policy areas is crucial for driving inclusiveness.
Now, I am the first woman ambassador of Moldova to the United States, and I truly enjoy all experiences I have had here in Washington, D.C. Based on my colleagues’ and interlocutors’ feedback, I represent my country well. This is all that matters to me.
Finally, aside from handling diplomatic affairs and working toward strengthened relations between the United States and Moldova, setting a positive example for capable women and girls is also part of my mission.
Five out of 12 members of the Moldovan cabinet are women, and about a quarter of the MPs [members of parliament] are women. Two of the four leading Moldovan political parties are chaired by women. The Moldovan political culture is changing for the better, and the recently amended electoral legislation is set to support women’s involvement in politics, providing a minimum 40 percent quota for women candidates on party lists.
But there are still many grounds to act on. A respect-based political discourse should be at the core of the general effort to encourage the involvement of women in politics, together with the readiness of current women politicians and officials to attract and lift up other capable women who show genuine interest for this field.
About the Author
Aileen Torres-Bennett is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat. Anna Gawel (@diplomatnews) is the managing editor of The Washington Diplomat.